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NewPath Therapy Blog | Anxiety: Understanding and Overcoming It

Anxiety: Understanding and Overcoming It

By Kimberly Craigen, MEd, LPC, NCC

Anxiety: Understanding and Overcoming It

By Kimberly Craigen, MEd, LPC, NCC

Anxiety is by far the most common and consistent mental health problem that I see in my mental health counseling practice. Anxiety does not discriminate, and it plagues clients and individuals of all ages and socioeconomic backgrounds. Anxiety disorders are the most common of mental disorders and affect nearly 30% of adults at some point in their lives, and women are more likely than men to experience anxiety disorders. The cause of anxiety likely involves a combination of factors including genetic, environmental, psychological, and developmental. Anxiety disorders can run in families, which can indicate that a combination of genetic makeup and environmental stressors can produce the disorder.

So, what is anxiety?

The anxiety response pattern is a complex blend of unpleasant emotions and cognitions that is often oriented to the future and future events. Anxiety encompasses not only cognitive and subjective components but also physiological and behavioral components.

At the cognitive and subjective level, anxiety involves negative mood, worry about possible future threats or danger, self-preoccupation, and a sense of not being able to predict the future threat or to control it if it occurs.

At a physiological level, anxiety often creates a state of tension and chronic overarousal, which may bring about a risk assessment and readiness for dealing with danger should it occur. Although there is no activation of the fight-or-flight response as there is with fear, anxiety does prepare or prime a person for the fight-or-flight response should the anticipated danger actually occur.

At a behavioral level, anxiety may create a strong tendency to avoid situations where danger might be encountered. This differs from fear because the immediate behavioral urge to flee is not usually present.

Although many threatening situations can occur that provoke fear or anxiety explicitly, many of our sources of fear and anxiety are learned, and research has proven that basic fear and anxiety response patterns are highly conditionable. This means that a completely neutral stimulus that is repeatedly paired with a reliable and predictably frightening and/or unpleasant event, such as various kinds of physical or psychological trauma, can acquire the capacity to elicit fear and/or anxiety themselves.

What are the symptoms associated with anxiety?

The symptoms associated with excessive anxiety include:

  • Excessive and frequent worry
  • Frequent restlessness or feeling keyed up or on edge
  • Being easily fatigued
  • Difficulty concentrating or mind going blank
  • Irritability
  • Muscle tension
  • Sleep disturbance (difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, or restless and unsatisfying sleep)
An anxious woman with her hand on her head sitting by her laptop

How does anxiety grow?

Anxiety drives people to avoid the things that scare them. When a “scary” thing is avoided, there is an immediate but short-lived sense of relief; however, the next time a similar threat arises, it feels even scarier. This creates a harmful cycle of avoidance and worsening anxiety.

When is anxiety too much?

When excessive worry is associated with three or more of the above symptoms for more days than not and lasts for six months or longer, then your anxiety is too much. Another indication that your anxiety is too much is when the anxiety, worry, and/or physical symptoms cause significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.

How is anxiety treated?

Treatments for anxiety can help, and for many anxiety problems, mental health therapy is often the most effective option. Therapy treats more than just the symptoms of the problem. It can help you uncover the underlying causes of your worries and fears; learn how to relax; look at situations in new, less frightening ways; and develop better coping and problem-solving skills. Mental health therapy gives you the tools to overcome anxiety and teaches you how to use them.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) – It is a very effective treatment for anxiety. During CBT, the unhealthy thinking patterns that create anxiety are identified and challenged. Many times, CBT will incorporate components of exposure therapy and relaxation skills.

Exposure Therapy – During exposure therapy, the mental health therapist and the client create a plan to gradually face anxiety-producing situations, thus breaking the cycle of avoidance. With enough exposure, the anxiety loses its power, and the symptoms diminish.

Relaxation Skills – Various techniques, such as deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and mindfulness, provide immediate relief from the symptoms of anxiety. With practice, relaxation skills will become a powerful way to manage anxiety in the moment.

Medication – It can help control the uncomfortable symptoms of anxiety; however, because medication does not fix the underlying problems of anxiety, it is typically used in conjunction with mental health therapy. The need for medication varies greatly case-by-case.